- 20 Sep 07, 10:49 PM
Paris - A phenomenon sweeping across France will reach a new peak in Paris on Friday.
With the country on tenterhooks for the do-or-die World Cup clash with Ireland, the man they call “L’Homme des Cavernes” (The Caveman) will rumble into the Stade de France with millions roaring him on around the country.
Sebastien Chabal, the shaggy-haired, bearded behemoth beloved of Sale fans, has belatedly found fame and popularity in his own country.
His image is everywhere, on television, publicity posters, newspapers. He even has his own puppet in France’s version of Spitting Image, “Les Guignols de l’info”.
And just as that football World Cup cemented Zidane’s cult status in France, Chabal is certainly the face of this Rugby World Cup to date as far as the hosts are concerned.
A newspaper poll before the action started found Christophe Dominici was the most popular French player, but that has all changed in the last fortnight.
As one headline here this week put it: “Rien n’arrete la chabalmania” (Nothing can stop Chabal mania)
It is a remarkable transformation for a player of monstrous power who has never been a regular in the French side despite his 33 caps since 2000, and who was booed off the pitch during a Test against Tonga two years ago.
Chabal’s cult status started to spread in June on a tour to New Zealand, where France’s second-string side was twice thrashed by the All Blacks.
Chabal’s thumping hit on Chris Masoe left the All Blacks flanker in a daze one week, while the next he broke the jaw of Ali Williams as the lock tried to tackle him. The two incidents are big hitters, so to speak, on YouTube.
That impression of a force of nature was heightened last month, when he bludgeoned his way through two English tacklers to score a winning try at Twickenham.
In France’s opening World Cup match against Argentina, Chabal’s appearance on the touchline as he prepared to come on as a replacement for vice-captain Fabien Pelous after an hour instantly galvanised the crowd.
On that occasion, despite a couple of charges, he was unable to rescue his side.
But the television pictures of the France squad getting down to work again in the days that followed all focused on the muscular frame of Chabal – doing sit-ups, on an exercise bike, sprinting, jumping, boxing.
But when the line-ups were announced in the stadium beforehand, no player got a louder cheer than Chabal.
Ironic, perhaps, since they were the club he wanted to join when he left Bourgoin-Jallieu in 2004, but the aristocrats of French rugby showed no interest at that time.
When they did try to tempt him back to France in late 2005, he was part of a Sale side on their way to winning the English Premiership that season and instead opted to extend his stay on the outskirts of Manchester until 2009.
Chabal, who grew up in Valence, south of Lyon, was known as “The Anaethetist” in France because of his tackling, but at Sale he is nicknamed “Sea Bass” – to distinguish him from fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bruno.
Sharks fans wear T-shirts bearing Chabal’s face over a skull and crossbones with the slogan “Chabad to the bone” (after a song by George Thorogood and the Destroyers).
In the stands of Toulouse’s Stadium Municipal last Sunday, members of his fan club were easy to spot – dressed in masks with long black hair and shaggy black beards.
Each time he ran with the ball, a “Houuuuuuu!” reverberated around the stadium, and nine minutes into the second half, he ploughed over for a popular try.
But five minutes later, he brought the house down with a second score that cemented his cult status, picking up a pass just inside his own half, accelerating between three Namibians, and then holding off two more tacklers before scoring in the right corner.
It has since been referred to as “Lomu-esque”, although sceptics might argue the 14-man Namibian defence was already stretched by that point.
The commentator on French TV, beside himself with excitement, bellowed “Il est enorme!” (He is immense!) over and over again, punctuated by gasps of “Quelle puissance!”(What power!)
When he was replaced shortly afterwards by Pelous, a stalwart of the Toulouse club, the commentator felt the need to explain that the rapturous ovation “was for Chabal, not for Pelous”. Chabal in turn applauded the crowd long and hard, bathing in the warmth of their affection.
The next day, every French newspaper carried his picture on their front page.
French people I have spoken to compare him to Eric Cantona, another Frenchman whose explosive nature and taste for the spectacular so endeared him to Manchester United fans when he ignited the most successful period in their history.
Chabal, who like Cantona, and latterly Thierry Henry, has seen his career flourish in England after leaving France, also appears to share some of Cantona’s idiosyncrasies.
At a media conference last week, he was asked if he could take a question in English. He replied, in English, “No, we are in France, so we speak French” before standing up and ending the session there and then.
He is also popular with the ladies. As one told me: “He needs to get his hair cut, and his beard. But yes, he is sexy”.
Chabal is refusing to talk about his burgeoning popularity, and with it his cult grows.
For a long time France coach Bernard Laporte seemed indifferent to his qualities, either leaving him on the bench, or using him at flanker rather than his club position of number eight, on the few occasions he did pick him from the start.
But for this World Cup he has reinvented Chabal, who only started playing rugby at 16 when he left his job as a mechanic, as a lock, where he will start against Ireland.
“If something is happening around Sebastien, it is because he is performing on the field,” Laporte said. “He gives confidence to others. We don’t take any notice of publicity. We have selected him for his speed and his explosivness.”
Look out Ireland. The Caveman is coming your way.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.